CORONAVIRUS/How a team of technicians is helping Taiwan triple mask production
By Wang Chao-yu, Chung Jung-feng and Matthew Mazzetta, CNA staff writers
In industrial parks across northern Taiwan, a team of some 100 technicians has spent the last six weeks assembling 92 surgical face mask production lines that will boost the country's daily production capacity from 4 million to 13 million masks.
Recruited from companies across Taiwan, they have been compared to a national team of engineering talent in the local media and have been hailed by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) for their contributions to Taiwan's COVID-19 prevention efforts.
For 63-year-old Chen Yu-hsu (陳宇旭), a factory manager at Posa Machinery in Taichung, taking part in the project has offered a chance to pass along knowledge from his decades of experience in precision manufacturing.
Although assembling face mask production lines is something new for Chen, he said he jumped at the chance when his employer recommended him for the task.
"At my age, it's an honor to still be able to do something for my country," he said.
For many younger team members, however, the constant traveling and grueling hours have required long and difficult separations from their families.
Hsu Hao-tung (徐浩東), an engineer from Taoyuan, compared the work to military service, but said his wife and elementary school-aged son have provided vital emotional support during his time away from home.
His wife has reassured him that "good deeds bring good karma," while his son, beaming with pride, recently told him: "Dad, I saw you on TV!"
Taiwan confirmed its first COVID-19 case on Jan. 21. Within days, surgical face masks disappeared from store shelves, amid panic buying over the country's perceived vulnerability to an outbreak.
In response to the shortages, the government banned face mask exports on Jan. 24 and took control of mask distribution from the private sector on Jan. 31.
On Feb. 6, it launched a rationing system through the National Health Insurance Administration, limiting people to two masks per week.
To increase production, the government invested NT$200 million (US$6.66 million) to purchase new supply lines, and began recruiting a team of about 100 technicians to assemble them at requisitioned manufacturing facilities.
In the first phase of the team's deployment, from Feb. 5-March 5, it completed an estimated four-to-six-month workload, assembling 60 supply lines. With each machine able to manufacture 100,000 masks per day, the country's daily mask production jumped from 4 million to 10 million.
Reflecting that increase, on March 5 the government raised the mask ration to three adult-sized or five child-sized masks per week.
Aside from the technicians themselves, the mobilization's success owed no small debt to the sacrifices made by the 26 requisitioned manufacturers.
Huang Che-chun (黃哲諄), chief executive of Sumeasy Enterprises in Keelung City, told CNA he was busy planning his Feb. 22 wedding when he learned that his factory had been requisitioned on Jan. 31.
According to Huang, his wife was initially against postponing their plans, arguing that they had already taken their wedding photos and sent out invitations.
What convinced her, Huang said, was an honest assessment of the risks. He explained: "Most of our guests would have come from the industry. If one person was infected, we'd all end up in quarantine and the country's mask production would drop by a third!"
"We couldn't take that kind of risk," he said.
Still, Huang admitted the recent weeks have been challenging. Instead of going on his honeymoon, he has been working 12-hour days, and has had to cancel NT$4 million (US$132,311) in export contracts.
Despite the personal costs, his company has expanded from four to nine production lines, while its daily capacity has grown from 400,000 to 1 million masks.
From a citizen's perspective, Huang said he sympathized with the government's intervention, without which, he conceded, "it would be very difficult to guarantee Taiwan's face mask supply."
Ready to Help
The team began the second phase of its work on March 6, assembling an additional 32 supply lines, which will boost Taiwan's daily production capacity to a planned 13 million masks by early April.
On March 20, it had already completed 28 of the machines, and held a handover ceremony for 15 of them at Chang Hong Machinery, in New Taipei's Wugu District.
At the ceremony, Hsu Wen-hsien (許文憲), chairman of the Taiwan Machine Tool and Accessory Builders' Association and one of the project's main organizers, marveled at the industry's response in a time of crisis.
When this started in early February, there was so much to consider that "I felt like I was walking in quicksand," Hsu said, adding that to have come so far in a month and a half felt "unbelievable."
Seeing the scale of the harm caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Hsu said he hoped that after stabilizing Taiwan's mask supply, the team will have the chance to help other countries to deal with their own shortages.
In the meantime, he said, the "national team" and the manufacturing industry as a whole remain ready to help, for as long as the pandemic continues.
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